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Western snowy plover (coastal)

Photo of Western Snowy Plover (Mike Baird)

Scientific name: Charadrius nivosus nivosus 

Status: Threatened

Listing Activity: The western snowy plover was listed as threatened in 1993. Critical habitat was designated in 2005 for 32 areas along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington and a recovery plan was finalized in September 2007. On December 17, 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with other federal agencies and the State of Oregon signed off on a statewide Habitat Conservation Plan. On June 19, 2012, we published a final rule of critical habitat along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.  In 2019, the Service updated the 5-year status review for the western snowy plover.

Potential Range Map

  • Description and Life History

    The western snowy plover is a small shorebird distinguished from other plovers (family Charadriidae) by its small size, pale brown upper parts, white belly, dark patches on either side of the neck, forehead, and behind the eyes, and their dark legs. Western snowy plovers weigh between 1.2 and 2 ounces and are about 6 inches long.


    The Pacific coast population of western snowy plovers breeds on coastal beaches and dry salt pans from southern Washington to southern Baja California, Mexico. Plovers lay their eggs in shallow depressions in sandy and  salty areas with little vegetation or driftwood. Because the sites they choose are in loose sand or soil, nesting habitat is constantly changing under the influence of wind, tides, storms, and encroaching plants.

    In the winter, many western snowy plovers move to warmer beaches in the southern part of their range. However, some stay in Oregon for the winter where they are joined by plovers from the interior population. This interior population nests in dry lake beds and salt flats and is distinct from the Pacific coastal population. Western snowy plovers form small flocks in the winter, roosting and foraging on undisturbed beaches.

    Life History

    Western snowy plover nesting season extends from early March through late September. The breeding season generally begins earlier in more southerly latitudes, and may be two to four weeks earlier in southern California than in Oregon and Washington.  Nests typically occur in flat, open areas that allow snowy plovers to see in all directions as a defense against predators.  Nests are often decorated with shells or bits of debris to help camouglage the eggs.  Western snowy plovers usually lay three eggs.  

    Snowy plover chicks leave the nest within hours after hatching to search for food. They are not able to fly until about four weeks after hatching, during which time they are especially vulnerable to predation and extreme weather events. Typically the male plover tends the chicks. Adult plovers do not feed their chicks, but lead them to suitable feeding areas. Young chicks are vulnerable to wind and cold and rely on their parents as a source of heat. Chicks will huddle underneath one of their parents to stay warm. The parent plover may look like it has ten legs and be doubled in size

    Adults use distraction displays to lure predators, dogs, and people away from chicks. Adult plovers signal the chicks to crouch and hide as another way to protect them. They may also lead chicks, especially larger ones, away from threats. Most chick mortality occurs within the first six days after hatching.  If successful, plovers often return to the same breeding sites year after year.

    Snowy plovers are primarily visual foragers. They forage for invertebrates in the wet sand and kelp within the intertidal zone, in dry, sandy areas above the high tide, on salt pans, and along the edges of salt marshes and lagoons. 

    Conservation Measures

    Due to successful partnerships and the diligence of the public in respecting beach restrictions during the nesting season, western snowy plover numbers are higher than they have been along the Oregon coast in decades.

    In the ten areas along the Oregon coast that are currently used for nesting by the snowy plover, seasonal restrictions on beach use are implemented in an effort to reduce disturbance to breeding plovers.  Recreational activities near nests, such as driving off-road vehicles, dog walking, horseback riding, kite-flying, camping, and picnicking may result in abandonment of the nest by adult plovers. Trash or food left on the beach may attract predators, especially ravens.

    The public can help in the increase the chance of plover survival and breeding success by:

    ..staying out of the signed nesting areas

    .."sharing the beach" by recreating away from plovers and using the wet sand

    ..keeping dogs on leash (where allowed) or leaving them at home

    ..removing litter from beaches to discourage predators

    ..refraining from flying kites or drones, which may be mistaken for avian predators by plovers on plover beaches

    ..volunteering to monitor plovers or to provide educational material to other beach users

    ..leaving the area immediately and contacting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife if a plover nest is found in an unprotected area.

    In addition to seasonal closures of select beaches, habitat restoration is an important tool in recovering plover populations. Habitat restoration includes removal of European beachgrass, leveling steep dunes that formed as a result of beachgrass introduction, or adding shell material in areas that provide high quality nesting habitat. Predator management in the form of hazing and removing predators such as ravens, crows, foxes, raccoons, and feral cats is one of the most critical management tools in ensuring snowy plover nesting success.

    The Oregon Biodiversity Information Center (ORBIC)  has been monitoring plover reproduction and survival since 1990.

    Partners in management and restoration include:

    Bureau of Land Management

    US Forest Service

    USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

    US Army Corps. Of Engineers

    Oregon Parks and Recreation Department

    Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife


    References and Links

    Lauten, D. J., K. A. Castelein, D. Farrar, A. Kotaich, E. Krygsman, and E. Gaines. 2018. The Distribution and Reproductive Success of the Western Snowy Plover along the Oregon Coast - 2018. Unpublished report. Prepared for Coos Bay District Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation Department.

    Page, G.W., L.E. Stenzel, W.D. Shuford, and C.R. Bruce. 1991. Distribution and abundance of the snowy plover on its western North American breeding grounds. J. Field Ornithology. 62(2):245-255.

    Page, G.W., J. S. Warriner, J. C. Warriner and P. W. C. Paton. 1995. Snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus). In: The Birds of North America, No. 154 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists Union, Washington, DC.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1993. Determination of Threatened Status for the Pacific Coast Population of the Western Snowy Plover. FR 58:12864-12874.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2005. Designation of Critical Habitat for the Pacific Coast Population of the Western Snowy Plover; Final Rule. FR 70:56969-57119.

    U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service. 2007. Recovery Plan for the Pacific Coast Population of the Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus). In two volumes.  Sacramento, California. xiv + 751pp.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2019. Five year status review for the Western Snowy Plover Pacific Coast Population Distinct Population Segment (Charadrius nivosus nivosus). FR 58:12864.


    Last updated: November 2019

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